Joan Fleming Reviews Fiona Hile and Luke Beesley

1 November 2018

Aqua Spinach opens with a line that loops a knot between art and life: ‘In the morning I started writing so slowly I got on a bus.’ ItThis opening line describes a dreamlike sort of cause and effect that sends the speaker on journeys through the movements of his writing hand.

What follows is a book of restless wordplay and surreal juxtapositions. The poems are febrile with ‘sizzling colour, blurring landscape’. Like Hile, Beesley animates the restive, private associations of his distinct sensibility.

Sometimes the associations that drive the play of words are perceptible, as in a line from the poem ‘Trumpet’: ‘Fresh as the ski lifts with the hill and powders her nose.’ The ski lift lifts, noun becomes verb, powder becomes powder: a trilling this-to-that which suggests a compositional method of pure play.

In other moments, the rules of the compositional game are harder to discern. These mostly prose-poems are crowded, weird, and pleasurably disorienting, though sometimes all the (severed) parts of a narrative are in evidence. The poem ‘Wild Thing’ opens with the lines: ‘Tidying up the rain her rusty hair leapt to an impartial towel and walked off the highway dreaming into traffic headlights her pale nudity ingenious, grieving. I helped clear chest crackles like trying to crush a coke can in the theatre.’ It’s a love poem. We have two agents, dreaming in a ‘candle air atmosphere’, orbiting each other in dream-logic leaps. ‘And this, as in sleep, is also a romance,’ writes Beesley. ‘We play characters dissolve into chance.’

It’s no surprise, then, that Andre Breton, President of Surrealism and proponent of dream-logic, surfaces throughout the book in references (one poem is titled ‘Otter Waist’) and quotations. There are also cameos by Gerard Nerval, Leonard Cohen, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Edouard Manet, Hans Arp, Jackson Pollock, and more. The collection is structured into three sections – ‘Ink,’ ‘Paint’, and ‘Film’ – which signal its ekphrastic orientation. And yet, any particular work, film, poem, or painting from which a certain poem might have arisen is never easily given away – and perhaps that’s a simplistic definition of ekphrasis, anyway.

While these poems are evidently intertextual and collagist, they are still their own private universes. They insist on themselves as poem-as-world. Beesley writes, ‘Art is its own bracket, originally of course made from a thicket.’ Thicket is an apt noun. These poems are dense. They are brambly with enigmatic intertextual divarications. They keep the birds out.

The movements of thought and language that these poems describe are not new movements. If anything, Beesley is continuing a tradition of high modernist obfuscation and surrealist dream-logic that might be thought of as historical. Perhaps, though, there is something distinctively contemporary about the febrile voraciousness of the poems’ web of influences, which echoes the glut of access to the global archive and the head-spinning anxiety of choice that characterises contemporary experience.

Sometimes, reading Aqua Spinach, I found myself flagging. There were moments when I began to tire from the overstimulation. It’s a feeling not unlike the one I get if I spend too much time in the city centre. I found myself longing for some rest of intention-typical lyric in the thicket of play and chaos. But these poems are insistently disorienting – boisterously, entertainingly so. After reading fifteen or twenty-five in a row, I might head into a cul-de-sac of my own mind, craving some bite-sized, describable truth. I might well look in my own mind for such a thing, but I’d be a fool to look for it in these poems. As Beesley writes in ‘Aquatic Centre’: ‘Truth the cabbage intercepts on its seagreen or its quick pepper-/corn’. Or, in other words, ‘Walls // grub up to the tallest guests and the short gusts scrub the corners / of the first and last lines to create a cubism already departed.’

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